MINNEAPOLIS, March 7, 2016 – What to expect from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in the final months of the Obama administration?

Vilsack detailed his to-do list Monday in an address to the National Farmers Union convention, mentioning things like promoting biofuels and releasing rules ensuring more fairness to poultry and hog producers in vertically integrated industries.

In general, he said, USDA will continue scattering as many USDA investments as possible to enhance “diverse economic opportunity for agriculture and farmers in all areas… allowing producers to negotiate their own prices with local customers,” rather than be solely dependent on general commodity markets. He thinks it’s owing mostly to increasing diversity of small and mid-sized farms that, despite mediocre commodity prices the past two years, “median farm income reached a record level last year.”

Meanwhile, “in a matter of weeks,” USDA hopes to complete its revised draft of rules to ensure more fairness in contracts for producers who feed poultry, pigs or other livestock in vertically integrated systems. Congress called for USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) to update and strengthen such rules in the 2008 farm bill, but then barred GIPSA in annual directives from completing most of the proposed changes.

Lawmakers didn’t order further delays last year, however, so Vilsack says, “the stop sign has been removed and it is my intension to finish our work with GIPSA.” After a review of USDA’s revisions by the Office of Management and Budget, new rules will be proposed, “in late spring or early summer,” and the regulations “finalized before I leave office,” the secretary said.

Pressed by Agri-Pulse for specific changes in the works, he said, “I don’t want to presuppose the process,” but will strive “for a balance between owner and producer.” 

Vilsack also said he will push in several directions for as much domestic and foreign market expansion as possible for biofuels. USDA is using a $100 million initiative to distribute blender pumps so fuel stations can offer customers  ethanol-gasoline blends of 15 percent or higher. He said 21 states are participating in that campaign, and the participating states, fuel suppliers and others have already kicked in $112 million to help distribute the pumps.

Further, USDA is funding a range of research and development work to improve advanced biofuels and is focused on promoting ethanol and biodiesel abroad and for U.S. military use. Vilsack said he promoted ethanol sales on recent trips to India and China (which bought a record volume from the U.S. last year) and will soon do so in trips to Chile and Peru.

Perhaps a bigger deal for biofuel markets, he said, is selling jet biofuel to the commercial aviation industry. “We thought in the past that we needed to sell biofuel just for cars and trucks and get it to hundreds of thousands of gas stations around the country,” he said, “The problem with that is that the oil industry is not particularly excited about that option, and they’ve made that perfectly clear.” However, he says, “It is a lot easier to sell biofuel to the commercial aviation industry than it is for cars and trucks.” Just 40 airports use 90 percent of the jet fuel in the country, he said, so USDA thinks sales of 1 billion gallons of jet biofuel a year is achievable.

Also at the top of Vilsack’s final-year agenda is pressing Congress toward two other actions. The first is a national uniform policy on labeling products for genetically modified ingredients, with the specter of the first state mandate, in Vermont, to be implemented this summer. He is advancing ideas favoring high-technology, such as an industry-proposed SmartLabel, that would allow consumers to scan a QR code on packages for biotech ingredient information.

“I think there is a solution to this labeling issue,” Vilsack said. “I think Congress needs to get to work.”

Finally, opening the Cuban market to U.S. producers, long a priority foreign policy issue for NFU, will get a final push by Vilsack, though Congress is seen as unlikely to act upon the issue in an election year. Still, Vilsack declared, “Congress needs to get rid of that embargo, and we need to have Congress fund the positions we are asking for so we can put people down there . . . (who) will allow us to move aggressively in that market when the embargo is lifted.”

“The U.S. is “missing hundreds of millions of dollars of [trade] opportunity,” he said. But there are other benefits, he said. “When they (the Cubans) see American products, there is no doubt in my mind what is going to happen to their political system.”